Monday, January 11, 2016

Deconstructing Research & Writing For Effective Learning

By the time students enter law school, they have learned a lot over the years about research and writing. This means it can take some convincing to tell them that what they've learned is "wrong."

See this list of 11 grammar rules that make no sense.

An InsideHigherEd article resonated when the author spoke of the reasons he cannot prepare students to write their ______ papers.

So, some thoughts on why I cannot effectively prepare students to write their (history, philosophy, sociology, economics, political science, whatever) papers.

One of the biggest reasons students have a hard time writing analysis and argument is because they often don’t have sufficient subject and domain expertise about what is being argued. They can describe what someone else says, but don’t yet have the knowledge to build upon that information. I see this time and again in the analytical research papers I assign as students struggle to insert their ideas into debates they’re not yet prepared to join. If your (history, philosophy, sociology, economics, political science, whatever) course is the first time they’ve encountered your field, they will struggle.

If I am successful, students exit my course armed with a flexible and adaptable writing process rooted in an analysis of the rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, genre), but when they encounter a new genre they often regress, often in every dimension, even down to the sentence level.

When faculty in other disciplines complain that students “can’t even write a decent sentence,” (likely true when looking at the actual assignments), the problem is not that students don’t know grammar and syntax, but because they are struggling badly with making meaning, and because they have no idea what they’re trying to say, why they’re trying to say it, or to whom, flailing commences.

I have seen this as students struggle through their first legal research and writing course. Traditionally, LRW takes place during a law student's 1L year, so the student often does not have the subject-matter expertise to argue a point with confidence. We try to teach them research and the mechanics of writing a memo or brief is a single semester, which is a difficult task.

While LRW is generally not a doctrinal class where the students are learning substantive law, it inevitably becomes one as you have to explain, for example, fair use in copyright for the students to be able to effectively research and analyze the law in an organized, well-written fashion. On top of that, we are also expected to make them Bluebook experts!

The author did have a helpful suggestion for student buy-in:
Help students understand the genre they are writing in. They should know not only the genre’s conventions, but the source/rationale behind those conventions. For example, rather than commanding students use a particular citation style, help them see that a citation style is rooted in a specific audience need, that we cite sources so other scholars can come in afterward and check and respond to the work.

Because we are their first exposure to writing in the legal genre, we spend a lot of time deconstructing learning to rebuild a competent legal writer. One thing we should all remember is that writing well is a life-long learning endeavor. The more proficient law students become in the law, the better they will be able to use the mechanics of research and writing that we teach them early in their legal careers.

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